The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Alex of Venice

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is having one heck of a year. After delivering a terrific performance in Faults, she follows up with a fierce, affecting turn in Alex of Venice. The directorial debut of actor Chris Messina, the film achieves that rare quality of feeling very authentic. Watching it is almost like eavesdropping into someone's life.

Winstead plays Alex, an environmental lawyer with workaholic tendencies. Her husband George (Messina) shuttles their young son back and forth to school, cares for her aging, forgetful father Roger (Don Johnson), and handles general household duties. George has become tired of being a house-husband, though, and he abruptly tells Alex that he's leaving her. She suddenly finds herself having to juggle both work and domestic duties, while also dealing with the heartache of having been rejected by her husband. Alex's wild-card sister Lily (played by co-writer Katie Nehra) shows up to help, although it's debatable how useful her advice is. Meanwhile, Alex starts a fling with Frank (Derek Luke), the businessman whose proposed spa she's trying to prevent from being built because it will wipe out a bunch of tadpoles.

Alex of Venice is essentially a character study of a woman trying to do it all under very difficult circumstances. Alex tries to keep all the plates spinning at once, only to discover that such a feat is nearly impossible. Lily encourages her to act a little selfishly and do things for herself, but after losing what she had, she's no longer certain what she wants. The movie follows Alex as she tries to figure out which path to go down next. There is an admirable feminist message in the way the story depicts this. A lot of films would have had Alex fall apart. This one shows her struggling, but holding tight. The arrival of a romantic curveball isn't enough to derail her, because she's a smart, competent woman.

Messina (a skilled character actor probably best known for his role on TV's The Mindy Project) shows great promise as a director. His style is straightforward and unfussy. Despite all the drama going on in Alex's life, there's not an ounce of melodrama on display here. Everything is presented in a slice-of-life way that's easily identifiable, even if you've never been in the sort of predicament in which Alex finds herself. Messina is also smart enough to know what a gift he has in his lead actress. There are a number of long, fluid shots that allow us to study Winstead's face as she registers a variety of emotions. At a key moment in Alex's journey, we simply watch her walk through an alley, getting closer and closer to the camera. She's figuring something out here, and we can tell exactly what it is. Later, in a moment of abandon, she takes some ecstasy at a party; slow motion shots are used to illustrate how the drug briefly takes her pain away and allows her to experience something else again.

Of course, to pull this sort of thing off, you need a stellar performance, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives one. The actress, who's appeared in everything from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to Smashed, once again displays incredible range. She gives a very interior performance, allowing us to see not only what Alex is showing to those around her, but also what she's feeling and keeping to herself. Because she is so good, we follow Alex with great empathy, hoping that she's able to sort out her personal dilemmas.

Alex of Venice has a subplot about Roger trying to land and maintain an acting role that compliments the main story but takes up too much time considering how undercooked it is. Also, a supporting character played by The Wire's Reg E. Cathey appears in many scenes, despite never really being introduced, explained, or developed. Those things are a bit of a distraction, especially since the prime focus of the film is so engaging.

Even if imperfect, Alex of Venice is a very human story, told with insight and meaning. It also establishes beyond a doubt that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is one of the most important young actresses on the screen today.

( out of four)

Alex of Venice is rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.

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